Surrealism in the Face of Tragedy: A Photographers View of the Brussels Attacks

The explosions in the Brussels airport and metro on March 22, 2016 shook the whole world and left the local residents in a new reality. The journalists covering this tragedy as well as many of the other most recent ones are also left slightly changed and help to transfer those emotions to us via their photos and stories.

We spoke with photographer and HackPack member Elizaveta Dmitrieva to understand a bit more of what it is like covering a tragedy such as the Brussels terrorist attacks, the difficulties and how the entire experience affects your work and life

How did you cover the bombings in Brussels?

The day of the terrorist bombings, Kommersant contacted me to provide photos from the scene. In about an hour after the explosions at the airport, I arrived at Schuman square in the center of Brussels. There I met up with a colleague and friend from Italy. We work for different publications, but covered the incident as a pair. He was the text half of the team, and I was focused on the photos. The police had blocked off the city center and were not permitting journalists closer than 300 meters to the Maelbeek metro station. This made it impossible to take any direct photos of the tragedy.

How then were you able to cover the events?

We decided to walk around the police perimeter. On the small side streets, we met eyewitnesses of the explosions and local residents who were frightened, standing with a group of Belgium special forces. We also spoke with police officers and members of these special forces.

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I focused on the people next to the barricades, the emotions of the eyewitnesses, the police, and the blocked off central streets to create a full photo report of the atmosphere in the city. Afterward, we set off for the historical city center passing the government building, deserted parks and squares and closed museums. All around us, military and police personnel hurried somewhere and helicopters chopped the sky above us.

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The contrast of serene, beautiful and old European buildings against the threatening silhouette of soldiers with automatic rifles produced a truly captivating picture. Plus during that month, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts hosted an exhibition of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, and I snapped a photo of one soldier passing the exhibit poster that was ideal for the photo report.

While my friend and I were observing everything around us and traversing the city, speaking with eyewitnesses, the police and journalists, we realized just how surreal Brussels looked that day. It was something similar to how the Belgian artist René Magritte must have seen it.

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I tried to capture Brussels exactly from that point of view — surreal. I wanted to be a side observer, not an active participant, something opposite of Robert Capa’s key principle [Capa, a famous war photographer, believed the closer you get to the action, the better the photo and its impact.]

Were you able to create this approach on your own or does your editor largely control how you take photos?

I’m a freelancer and, fortunately for me, the publications that a work with practically don’t place any restrictions on my work, so I have the liberty of deciding how to organize my approach based upon my relationship to the surroundings. If I worked for an agency, I don’t think that I would take pictures the same way. Most likely everything would be far more professional with less individuality.

What are some of the key lessons you learned from covering this tragedy?

To do a truly good job, I think that it is imperative to have a wealth of experience covering crises. Otherwise, you are caught in the epicenter of horrible events and unable to gain a sense of the scale of the tragedy. In those types of situations, one is often overcome with a defensive reaction, unconsciously diminishing the significance of the events whirling around them. This helps to withstand a feeling of panic, but it hinders your ability to capture the events with the necessary amount of sensitivity because you subconsciously are blocking out your emotions. And in my opinion, a photographer should not only keep an eye on the facts, but how they relate to them. This way you are able to take photos with emotion. This is liberating while at the same time a very difficult task.

Besides that, a question from Russian television station really struck me. “How did my relationship to immigrants change after the terrorist attacks in Brussels?” When they asked me, I realized that I don’t have any right to possess a any ‘special’ feelings toward immigrants let alone change them. First of all, I myself am an immigrant (if you use the original meaning to this word). I moved to a foreign country and live there. Secondly, there are no direct connections between immigrants and the terrorist attacks. After this question, I started to develop a project entitled “The Other Immigrants”. It focuses on the psychology of immigrants living in foreign countries, but who don’t look like stereotypical immigrants (often the press distorts the meaning of the word ‘immigrant’ to mean people of Middle Eastern or African roots).

What was most difficult for you in covering the attacks?

For me, it was the ability to comprehend the real-ness of the events. I couldn’t grasp it all at once. Day after day, I came across news of people who had died in the terror attacks and realized that they were indirectly connected to me. In my French class, I saw a poster with the photo of one female student who died, someone’s nannie couldn’t look after the children in the evening because she went to the memorial to pay respects to her friends, etc. After such events, you begin to take photos differently. For me it seemed that the necessary emotions switch on and your photos begin to come alive.

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What are your thoughts on taking photos of tragedies? Should publications be permitted to publish victims or the deceased?

If we are talking about professional photographs from a tragedy, then the answer is obvious: if a photo speaks of something bigger than just ‘here everyone was blown up, I can take pictures of corpses and I’m not afraid, the lighting is very tragic and everytihng appears very sad’, then yes. If the photo has a deeper meaning and to fully express it there must be blood in the shot, then of course, it would be possible to publish it. However, if you are just capturing blood for the sake of blood, then those photos shouldn’t draw any special attention from the editor. However, it is important to keep in mind that the market usually doesn’t work by that logic.

Connect with Elizaveta today through HackPack and expand your opportunities!

Elizaveta graduated from Moscow State University in Russia, then moved to Brussels where she works on photoprojects, publishing work as a freelancer in publications such as Vedomosti and Kommersant.

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